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  • Writer's pictureInge BB

Christmas in Paradise: Celebrations in Zanzibar

The question of whether Christmas is celebrated in Zanzibar might seem valid at first, considering that approximately 97% of the population adheres to the Muslim faith. Nevertheless, amidst the numerous mosques, there are two notable Christian churches: the Roman Catholic St. Joseph's Cathedral and the Anglican Christ Church.

St. Joseph's Cathedral - one of the city's most significant historical structures
This impressive cathedral was constructed between 1893 and 1897 by French missionaries and local converts who had initially established a mission in the area in 1860.
The plans were drawn by the French architect Léon Vaudoyer, who also designed the cathedral in Marseille, France. Both, the tiles and stained-glass windows were imported from France, and the murals on the interior walls, painted just after the completion of the cathedral, also display a clear French influence.
Unfortunately, some of the murals have recently undergone poorly executed restoration. The cathedral is regularly used by the town's Catholic community, comprising Zanzibaris, mainland Tanzanians, and Europeans. Several masses take place every Sunday, with one or two during weekdays as well. Outside of mass times, the main cathedral doors may be locked, and access is through the back door reached via the courtyard of the adjacent convent.
The church is centrally located in Stone Town, in the Baghani area of town along Kenyatta Road, featuring prominent twin spires. Despite its spires being a major landmark from a distance, finding the cathedral in the narrow streets can be surprisingly challenging. To find the church, the easiest route is through Kenyatta Road to Gizenga Street, then taking the first right turn through the maze of narrow streets in Stone Town.

Christ Church: A Landmark of Anglican Architecture in Stone Town
Christ Church is an Anglican cathedral located in Stone Town, belonging to the Anglican Church of Tanzania. It stands as one of the most prominent examples of early Christian architecture in East Africa. The church was constructed over seven years, with the foundation stone laid on Christmas Day in 1873 and its opening ceremony held on Christmas Day in 1879. The vision for the church came from Edward Steere, the third Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar, who actively participated in its design. Like most buildings in Stone Town, it is primarily constructed of coral stone. The cathedral features a unique concrete roof in the form of an unusual barrel vault, blending vertical Gothic and Islamic details in its overall structure. It was consecrated in 1903 and named after the Canterbury Cathedral.
Situated on Mkunazini Road in the heart of the Old Town, Christ Church occupies a significant area that was once the largest slave market in Zanzibar. The cathedral's construction was intended to celebrate the end of slavery. The altar is said to be located precisely where the main "whipping post" of the market once stood. In the square, there is a well-known monument to the slaves (depicting human figures in chains emerging from a pit) and a museum on slavery.
Edward Steere passed away from a heart attack when the cathedral was nearly completed and was buried behind the altar. Inside the church, there is a cross made from the wood of the tree that grows at the spot where David Livingstone's heart was buried in Chitambo.

Christmas Celebrations
The majority of the (Muslim) population does not celebrate Christmas, but some shops are adorned with artificial pine branches and twinkling colorful lights nonetheless. The approximately 2% Christian population observes Christmas in a manner similar to Europe or America, though the celebrations are more lively and exuberant than contemplative.
During Advent, believers attend daily church services to prepare for the Christmas festivities. Unlike in Europe, Christmas is not a time for children's gifts, but families traditionally purchase new clothes for the occasion, which are worn during the church service. In preparation for various events in schools and communities, both children and adults rehearse singing and dancing well in advance.
The first-ever service at St. Joseph's Cathedral on Christmas was held in 1898, featuring the Sultan's brass band. Nowadays, Christmas mass is celebrated every day in the cathedral. The Christmas service is also celebrated at Christ Church. Following the service, people gather for festive feasts either at home or in one of the city's restaurants.
Most hotels, including Matlai, offer a special Christmas menu. However, many guests come to Zanzibar to escape the hustle and bustle of the holiday season back home and the cold weather. They prefer to enjoy their days on the beach and in the sea, basking in the summer temperatures and abundant sunshine.

New Year's Eve
This also applies to the New Year's Eve celebration. A beachside barbecue for dinner, a bonfire on the beach accompanied by local drum music and dances, all against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean – this is truly a special experience. In this setting, no one misses the fireworks, as they are only organized by a few large hotels in Zanzibar under military supervision due to the potential risk posed by the typical, easily flammable makuti roofs.

May this Christmas fill your hearts with joy, your homes with laughter, and your lives with warmth. Wishing you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and a New Year filled with prosperity, good health, and endless possibilities.

As we reflect on the past year, we look forward to the new opportunities and challenges that the coming year will bring. May it be a time of piece, happiness, and satisfaction.

Thank you for being a part of our journey. We are excited about what the future holds and are grateful to have you with us.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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